Cobalt, lithium and other ‘rare earth’ metals support the climate response, but they come at a cost.
A landmark lawsuit against global tech titans relying on cobalt for their products was filed in the United States this week, underscoring the growing concern over how sustainable solutions to address the climate crisis still rely on unsustainable practices in the planet’s extractive industries.
The International Rights Advocates, a human rights NGO based in the U.S., filed the class-action case on behalf of children injured or killed in the Democratic Republic of Congo while working in artisanal mines in the country’s southeastern “cobalt belt” provinces. The 14 cases involved tunnel or wall collapses in unregulated mines, and are presented as forced-labor law violations under the U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act.
Five companies – Apple, Tesla, Dell, Microsoft and Google company Alphabet – all stand accused of “knowingly benefiting from and aiding and abetting the cruel and brutal use of young children” to mine cobalt. The legal team, which released the court documents on the NGO website, said some of the Congolese children were as young as six when they were harmed. The 79-page filing details the circumstances under which each of them were forced into the mines by poverty and lack of economic opportunity in their communities, and what happened when they were hurt or killed.
“Every smartphone, tablet, laptop, electric vehicle or other device containing a lithium-ion rechargeable battery requires cobalt in order to recharge,” the court brief said, making the connection to consumer behavior and corporate profits. International Rights Advocates also named mining firms operating in DR Congo, while disputing the tech companies’ success in cleaning up supply chains or – as four of the companies did – launching transparency and “model mine” programs.
The NGO legal team said it is “continuing to investigate other tech and car companies and expects to add additional companies to the lawsuit.” Meanwhile, although most of the five named multinational firms have declined specific comment, Dell and Apple denied knowingly or intentionally failing to end child labor in their cobalt supply chains. Dell issued a statement saying it has never “knowingly sourced operations using any form of involuntary labor, fraudulent recruiting practices or child labor.”
Apple said it thoroughly investigates such claims and removed six cobalt suppliers this year alone while, like Dell, it remains committed to responsible sourcing. Last year, Apple did 1,049 supply assessments in 45 countries, and the company issues annual reports on the findings.
Yet the lawsuit speaks to broader concerns about the resources and extractive industries needed to build a sustainable future, but at the heart of conflict and environmental crisis in affected nations.
Cobalt demand is projected to reach up to 300,000 tons per year by 2028, two-thirds of that battery grade, according to Amnesty International. Most of the cobalt comes from the DR Congo, although no country legally requires companies to publicly report on their supply chains, the NGO said in March while appealing to the electric vehicle industry.
Lithium is at the heart of land degradation and resource conflict affecting Bolivia, Australia and other nations, with deposed Bolivian leader Evo Morales insisting that his nation has undergone a “lithium coup” over who has rights to, and benefits from, the resources. From China to Mexico to South Sudan, mining of rare-earth metals needed for climate-transition technologies continues to be a solution that introduces new problems, and the Congolese cobalt lawsuit is another development that’s forcing a reassessment of how the world needs to move forward.
As World Bank notes below, the problem creates opportunity for change and a “climate smart mining” approach.